Mentoring as been around, in one form or another, for 2,500 years or more. Coaching, the new kid on the block, has a history of at most a couple of hundred years. Yet, while mentoring in the past three decades has had great impact on social development, it is coaching that has captured the headlines in the worlds of business, employment and personal transformation.

Now, however, there are signs that the balance is adjusting. To a limited extent, coaching is finding wider application in social change – for example, in supporting people from disadvantaged groups in developing communication skills and performing well in job interviews. But it is in mentoring that the most significant expansion is happening. Indeed, in some countries we now see the partial replacement of some executive coaching by executive mentoring.

This phenomenon is driven by both supply and demand factors. On the supply side, executives at or near retirement, who have interest and skills in people development, increasingly see mentoring as an alternative (to non-executive directorships) way of continuing to use their skills and knowledge.

Coaching does not appeal to these individuals for a number of reasons. In particular:

  • The industry is mostly populated by people with little experience of enterprise leadership. Former leaders want to be valued for their experience
  • In spite of the creditable efforts of coaching’s professional bodies to establish standards, the coaching industry encompasses many “fringe” practices, with which leaders generally prefer not to be associated.
  • Many coaching practitioners tend to belong either to the “hard”, results driven school or the “soft and fluffy” school and these two schools have tended to drive the general reputation of coaching. Mentoring occupies a middle ground, more acceptable to pragmatic leaders.
  • Coaching has in some aspects been heavily oversold. For example, the oft-repeated nostrum that a good coach can coach anyone in anything is both dangerous and unethical – the coach has to know enough of the client context to frame insightful questions and ensure client safety.
  • Effective leaders tend to look for results over the medium term and take this perspective into their mentoring; most executive coaching focuses on short- term objectives — often driven by a requirement from sponsors for specific, time-bound outcomes.
  • For many people, their experience of coaching has been that it is primarily remedial.  While this can be highly rewarding work for a coach (from both satisfaction and monetary perspectives), leaders tend to be more motivated by helping others realize their potential. While, of course, this can be part of coaching, its association with mentoring is much more tangible.

On the demand side, most of the same issues are relevant.

  • At the most senior levels, clients increasingly want someone, who knows what it feels like to be in a leadership role. They want someone with relevant practical experience, which can be used in co-thinking about issues. In extreme situations, they may also want direct advice, although effective mentors will typically want to be very sure that the mentee has exhausted their own fund of knowledge and insight before they venture into advice-giving.
  • Buyers of coaching are becoming increasingly more aware of the importance of evidence-based approaches – they are looking for “simple but effective”. Mentoring as a process is much easier to understand and less easy to screw up than coaching!
  • The middle ground between hard and soft approaches is also preferable to more informed buyers of coaching and can be argued to be more representative of the genuine mainstream of coaching as well.
  • Mentoring has gained in credibility precisely because it has not been oversold. Indeed, it could be argued that it has been undersold. Mentoring’s impact on retention of talent, for example, is higher than for any other people management intervention.
  • Corporate buyers are increasingly cautious of “short-term-fixes”. So the longer-term perspective of mentoring provides a useful antidote. There are, however, downsides to the long-term perspective – not least that it’s harder to measure the impact of mentoring (both because results take longer to achieve and because the changes may be less susceptible to quantitative evaluation)

Other issues contributing to the changing balance between coaching and mentoring are:

  • Greater attention to career self-management by both organizations and individuals. The quality and scope of people’s networks is increasingly important in both leader effectiveness and proactive career management. Mentors provide both access to new networks and guidance in how to build and nurture networks.
  • The need for “sounding boards” to help executives and managers think through complex strategic decisions. Mentors can test the mentee’s logic and challenge them by offering different perspectives, rooted in the mentor’s own experience and observations.
  • The moral crisis in business has given rise to a new phenomenon – ethical mentoring. Ethical mentors help mentees to recognize when and how ethical dilemmas arise (build their ethical awareness) and to think through how to deal with specific ethical issues. Could a coach achieve the same? Probably, with appropriate training. The association with mentoring rather than coaching appears to stem from a difference in “brand” – whereas coaching tends to be associated with solving problems, mentoring is more readily associated with developing wisdom.

As the European Mentoring and Coaching Council has discovered, when it comes down to defining the differences between coaching and mentoring, there are in reality few things that stand out as solely the territory of one or the other. The skills sets are very similar, as are the kind of issues that mentors and coaches address. The shift of emphasis reflected here is therefore not earth-shattering – it is simply a rebalancing between two equally powerful, equally valuable and overlapping approaches to supporting people in their development.

© David Clutterbuck 2013

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